The canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27 and the announcement soon after that Pope Paul VI would be beatified in October have sparked focus on the remarkable run of saintly popes over the last century and a half. Some are terming this a golden age of holy pontiffs, while others see it as a dangerous self-canonization of the papacy.
Eighty popes have been canonized by the Church, but since 530, there have been only 26 popes declared saints, and since St. Celestine V (d. 1294) there have been only four, three of them elected in the 20th century: Pius X (1903-1914), John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005). Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) was beatified in 2000, and Paul (1963-1978) will be beatified Oct. 19. Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) is venerable, one step away from beatification, while the short-reigning Pope John Paul I (1978) is under investigation and bears the title of Servant of God.
That leaves only three deceased popes since 1878 — Leo XIII (1878-1903), Benedict XV (1914-1922) and Pius XI (1922-1939) — who are not candidates for canonization.
To find any parallel to this surprising surfeit of holy popes, we must reach back into the first centuries of the Church.
Indeed, the first 35 popes are all saints, and 52 of the first 54. The reasons for this are obvious. The early popes led the Church in the first centuries of growth across the Roman world, but they also faced arrest, torture and martyrdom, starting with Peter, crucified upside down on Vatican Hill.
Even the popes of the fourth and fifth centuries — in the era after the Roman persecutions — were conspicuously saintly, guiding the Church, especially in the West, against the dangers of heresy and the cataclysmic invasion of the Roman Empire by the vast barbarian tribes of the Goths, Vandals and Huns.
Critics speak out
So why are there so many holy popes today?
Critics — and there are many even in the Church — have spoken against canonizing modern popes. Some, for example, have suggested that there is undue haste in the modern process, echoing similar criticism of John Paul II and his record-setting pace of canonizations and beatifications. He canonized 482 and beatified 1,382 men and women during his 27-year pontificate, more than his 17 immediate predecessors combined. Critics argue that the supposed failings of the latest popes are being ignored or pushed aside in the rush to declare them among the saints.
Liberals, long unhappy with John Paul’s forceful restatement of Church teaching, claim that his record in the clergy sex abuse crisis has somehow tainted his legacy. Similarly, some traditionalist Catholics opposed the canonization of John XXIII because of what they see as the confusion that followed the Second Vatican Council.
The reply to such critics starts with the simple fact of the process of canonization. The investigation is concerned less with a pope as the person who was elected. John Paul II was not canonized as much as it was Karol Wojtyla. The whole life of the pontiff was examined, and the investigators concluded that he had met all of the requirements recognized by the Church for sanctity and was credited with the intercession leading to miracles.
All of the other modern popes who have been canonized or beatified have received the same assessment. Even John XXIII, canonized by Pope Francis without a second miracle, still went through the ordinary process and was beatified in 2000 only after the approval of a miracle. Put simply, the Church has been blessed of late with exemplary Vicars of Christ.
And just as the Church proclaims papal infallibility but not papal impeccability, so too the process of canonization does not deny that mistakes were made during their pontificates. But the recent popes achieved genuine sanctity and can be held up to the faithful as models to be emulated.
Equally, the current streak of saintly popes does not suggest that there were no saintly popes in the last 1,000 years — read the lives of Innocent XI (1676-1689), who reformed the Roman Curia, and Servant of God Pius VII (1800-1823), who lived for five years as a captive of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The late Medieval and Renaissance popes were temporal rulers who had to wage wars and bitter political struggles to keep the Papal States free from secular threats. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) may have commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, but he also pledged not to shave his beard until the Papal States were safe from political threats. His beard grew very long.
The contemporary popes, meanwhile, especially from the final end of the Papal States in 1870 in the wake of Italian unification, were liberated from the often grim political concerns of being papal monarchs. While they remain absolute rulers of the tiny Vatican City State, the popes are freer today to concentrate on spiritual matters.
While no longer monarchs in the medieval sense, of course, the popes in modern times actually command a greater global presence than ever before. They are major figures on the world stage and are intensely public examples of a Christian life. John XXIII captured the popular imagination with his manifest goodness and humor. John Paul II was the conscience of his age for his defense of the human person, but he was also an icon in how to suffer and face death with faith and joy.
Why, then, if they were often called “saints” while alive should they not be studied as examples after death? Pope Gregory I was popularly declared a saint right after his passing in 604, which means that the cries of “Santo Subito!” (“Saint Immediately!”) for John Paul II at his funeral in 2005 were neither unprecedented nor unseemly.
Related to that is the fact that the popes are beneficiaries in a positive sense of the call to holiness that has become a distinct feature of modern Catholicism. Thanks in large part to the labors of John Paul II and his successors, humanity today is much more aware of the relevance and universality of sanctity. It is fitting that some of the saints for the modern world should have actually led the Church during a time of expansion matched only by her earliest days. This is not the papacy canonizing itself, but accepting the reality that holiness can and should start with the successors of Peter, the first pope to be a saint. He is likely to be joined by many others.
Matthew Bunson is OSV’s senior correspondent.